Peak to Valley to Peak

An intrepid adventurer tackles her greatest fear: financial instability

Peak to Valley to Peak

I started my mountaineering “career” in 2003, soon after business school. As a small woman, a little round at the edges, it was incredibly transformative to push my body to its limits in inhospitable environments and succeed! I carried backpacks over 60 pounds, pushed up to altitudes nearing 7,000 meters, and endured subarctic weather…and I freaking loved it.

These experiences that I sought taught me to look at risk very differently back in my cozy corporate life. There was no threat of avalanche, potentially fatal altitude sickness, crevasse, or rock fall. Though fear of public speaking or rejection is perceived as real risk, you won’t actually die if you fall flat in a presentation or don’t get the promotion that was a bit of a stretch.

Once I realized that the fear I felt in the office was not “real,” it helped me push hard and fast in the male-dominated world of structured finance and, later, asset management. However, I always felt like a bit of a fraud when anyone called me inspiring or fearless. I was not facing my greatest fear in life—financial insecurity.

That fear came from losing my mother when I was 12, being raised by grandparents who could not afford to care for my sister and me, and then living with a deadbeat father for a few years before I struck out on my own at the age of 17. I worked up to three jobs during my undergraduate years, somehow managing to graduate first in my class at American University. That intense drive was prompted primarily by fear of financial insecurity. If I was the best, I could never become destitute! I chose finance jobs originally because they were safe and lucrative. I knew I would be able to support myself.

In November 2012, I purchased a small women’s adventure travel company called Call of the Wild. It was affordable because it was a turnaround. I was excited. This was my chance to align my passion and my profession—and I was finally facing my deepest darkest fear.

Fast forward through partner embezzlement, government shutdowns, Yosemite wildfires, earthquakes in Nepal, compressed margins, disintermediation in the travel industry, and increased government regulation and fees, and I filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy (liquidation) of Call of the Wild in January 2016.

I faced my fear, and yep, the worst happened. Trust me, it sucked! However, I’m standing on the other side of this yawning crevasse, and I’m still alive. Business school buddies, former colleagues, even former clients have kept me from falling in. The outpouring of support has been one of the most uplifting experiences during one of the most challenging times of my life.

I looked forward to the next challenge, returning to the corporate world, and wondered, like many who step out for all sorts of reasons, would I be able to find my way back in? Would I be able to return to financial security?

I did, and it was shockingly easy. A former colleague forwarded a unique job description to me—CFO of Toniic, a startup-like impact investing network effecting change more quickly through innovative capital deployment.

Networking works and safeguarding your reputation is key. I started my new role in September in San Francisco. I am excited and grateful. My second love, after mountaineering, is impact investing. I might just be able to have it all: excitement, challenge, financial security, and the reward of making a difference in the world.

Business people on the whole tend to be quite risk averse. When it comes to our own careers, we plan, we strategize, we methodically acquire skills, and we march up the corporate ladder. I feared that when I stepped out on a nonlinear path, it might be difficult to return. I was more focused on avoiding risk but have now come full circle. I believe wholeheartedly that we need to celebrate our failures as equally as our successes, instead of sweeping them under the rug.

How might you be holding yourself back due to your own fear of failure? I invite you to join me on the path of continuing to challenge our fears…and the status quo!

Emilie Cortes, MBA 02

Emilie Cortes, MBA 02, is returning to finance after a five-year foray into entrepreneurship—first acquiring Call of the Wild Adventures, a women’s-only international adventure travel company, then serving as general manager of Duma Explorer and Chaka Camps in Tanzania. She continued to serve as treasurer of the Compton Foundation during that time to stay connected with impact investing and has returned to the field as CFO of Toniic in San Francisco. She continues to pursue lofty mountaineering objectives and to share the transformative power of the mountains with others.